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Army muses on GCV after test-drives in the desert

Today's soldiers grew up with the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle.

But Sweden's CV9035 is very nimble and maneuverable for a big armored vehicle.

Israel's Namer gives troops great situational awareness with its seven cameras.

And then there's the Army's factory-fresh double-V hulled Stryker.

The Army has been comparing and contrasting some of the top troop-carriers in the world as it decides how to proceed with its Ground Combat Vehicle program. Its official story this week was careful to praise almost all of the participants, but if you read between the lines, you can still clearly see that the Army wants its own, brand-new, custom-build GCV, not something from off the shelf.

Per the Army:

Maneuver Battle Lab officials said a key objective in the Army's campaign is to produce a vehicle that can carry nine fully equipped infantrymen and three crew members. The M2A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicle currently in use holds a maximum of seven infantry soldiers.

"Maneuverability was my focus," said Spc. Michael Platzer, a driver. "The CV9035 was the most responsive, but the two Bradleys were a close second. I found that the vehicles with a three-man crew allowed us to maneuver and fight better, and they were still capable of carrying a whole squad."

Sgt. Nehemiah Robertson, a gunner, said he identified a target at 1,500 meters in the Swedish CV9035 vehicle but also liked the Bradley's sights capability. Both delivered great firepower. "We liked the bigger-gun capabilities," Manilla said. "Any vehicle without a large cannon to destroy armored vehicles gave us some challenges because it forced the soldiers to dismount."

Each vehicle provided different levels of situational awareness, said Maj. Jerel Evans, the EXFOR commander. The Israeli Namer, for example, had seven cameras -- they can show the positions of dismounted squad members and where the gunner is firing.

"All those vehicles and emerging technologies allow soldiers to have that situational awareness before they hit the ground," he said. "Survivability is a big feature the Army is going after in a new ground combat vehicle. It has to be able to maneuver in urban environments and off-road terrain. The IED (improvised explosive device) threat has changed the way we fight. It's put more emphasis on survivability."

Evans said he likes the direction taken by the Army in seeking a vehicle that's as versatile, lethal and adaptive as the individual warfighter. "We need a vehicle that deals with the capability gaps we've had in other vehicles," he said. "This comes from lessons learned since we've been fighting in 10-plus years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I love this new concept."

Technically, the Army is supposed to be keeping an open mind about buying an existing vehicle, such as a Bradley with no turret, or a version of the German-built Puma it once rejected. (Though this week's story made no mention of the Puma.) The Army said it would keep this open mind as a condition of awarding last year's development contracts to General Dynamics Land Systems and BAE Systems, so those firms could continue developing their brand-new competitors to be the GCV. But by all appearances, the Fort Bliss soldier tests just seem to be making the Army hungrier for its own brand-new vehicle.

This dual-track GCV effort puts the Army at a crossroads. Its top acquisitions leaders are tired of being beaten up by Congress and the press. They say the service's new wave of major programs, including GCV, network modernization and the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, are going to give them a chance to prove they've changed. The Fort Bliss story encapsulates the two directions they could go from here.

The classic Army response to this kind of soldier evaluation would be to say: This is easy! We want everything! Our vehicle needs to have the space for nine soldiers; the firepower of the Bradley; the agility of the CV9035; the C4ISR of the Namer with our awesome new Army network; the protection of a double-V hull (why not triple-V?); the grappling hook system from the Batmobile; it needs to be invisible like James Bond's Aston Martin; and it needs cruise control. Money is no object.

Those days, we keep hearing, are over. Now the new Army will mull the data points that soldiers turned up in their evaluation and soberly assess the needs, wants and nice-to-haves for its GCV. If we build something big enough to carry nine, it may cost us $X million more to get a certain amount of speed. How badly do we want that?  Does every soldier in the vehicle really need his own iPod dock? Can there be a single iPod dock and we'll issue guidance that troops must agree on their soundtrack -- or develop conops in which each soldier contributes a song to the squad playlist? This is the kind of innovative thinking the Army says it must do to make this program a reality.

The headwinds are already blowing: The Army has already acknowledged that its estimates for the cost per vehicle have exceeded its own previous ceiling, and the prediction from DoD's office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation was even higher. GCV has top cover in Congress, in particular from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, but with the program already under a microscope, the bottom line is that the new Army will have to prove it can control itself.

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